Regeneration after the crunch

Geraint Talfan Davies reports from the Wales Regeneration Summit.

If you wanted to see signs of the way that the world is changing in the wake of the banking crisis and recession, you could not have done better than be at the Wales Regeneration Summit in Swansea in late October. In the conference suite of the new Liberty Stadium you could see and hear the tectonic plates move and grind against each other. Ministers, councillors, planners, housing specialists, environmentalists, architects, developers and bankers looked into a different future.

This was no parochial gathering, but drew together some of the best expertise available – a by-product of the appointment of Tim Williams as a specialist adviser to the Welsh Regeneration Minister, Leighton Andrews. Williams reputedly has been one of the key players in the regeneration of London and an adviser to three successive Westminster housing ministers.

Leighton Andrews set the tone with the declaration that “Keynesianism is back”, and before this could be dismissed as merely the wish fulfilment of the left, he was soon supported by both bankers and developers, who concurred that “the old models of regeneration are bust”.

Andrews’ adviser, who professed to be a “strong municipalist”, in favour of “double devolution to local authorities and neighbourhoods” argued that “the new phase belongs to the public sector” which would have to take a large part of the land value risk off the private sector. Private sector speakers queued up to agree.

Philip Jenkins from the Royal Bank of Canada, and a specialist on housing finance, surveyed the recent triple wave of consolidation, retrenchment and nationalisation in the banking sector, and worried about the vicious cycle of decline that could result from a “negative feedback loop”. The public sector, he said, would have to lead us out of that.

Both he and Chris Brown of the Igloo Regeneration Partnership – one of the most highly rated ‘ethical developers’, now faced with the difficult task of developing a large site alongside Cardiff’s Roath Basin – saw the end of an era when “flats masqueraded as regeneration”. There was a need to rewrite the rule book urgently. The property crash was transforming the market from “short term traders to long term investors”, and Brown believed a banking style rescue was needed in the regeneration world.

There was a need, he said, to stop good companies going bust. Government agencies could also buy land, use financial covenants, provide gap funding, and recruit good people from the private sector to act as programme managers. Brown was gloomy about the immediate prospects for deprived neighbourhoods that, he said, would probably take a 1979-style hit. Government should invest in affordable housing to mitigate unemployment, and in social development to reduce crime. He, too, regretted the fact that ‘some developers stole the word regeneration from us some years ago’.

This undoubtedly chimed with Leighton Andrews’s emphasis on ‘integrated, holistic regeneration where people are as important as place’. It also hints at the kind of policies that might make use of the new £250m urban development fund, backed by the European Investment Bank and the EU’s Jessica programme, that Andrews unveiled on the day. The irony is that a healthier equilibrium, with the public sector in the driving seat, may actually give the private sector a more assured place in regeneration.

The holistic theme was picked up by two authoritative voices on the social benefits of good public space: Sir Stuart Lipton, of Chelsfield Partners, a former Chairman of England’s Commission on Architecture and Built Environment, and Oliver Schulze, from the Gehl architectural practice in Copenhagen whose founder has written some of the most influential works on quality public spaces across the world.

Stuart Lipton, who has something of a hero status in the urban movement, bemoaned the fact that looking after the young and poor was not part of the planning agenda. He wanted greater stress on the civic side of our life, putting quality back into the ordinary, thinking less about big projects and concentrating on high quality small-scale projects ‘that can come together like a string of pearls’. Great spaces are more important than the buildings, he said, arguing for the human scale and purpose of the village green. He thought good design was for everyone, not least in our hospitals and schools.

He was one of many who criticised the preponderance of apartments in modern urban development, arguing for more family housing, and even the return of the spacious Parker Morris council house standard that disappeared in the early 1970s. Significantly, he had found it difficult to find good examples of modern public spaces in Wales to add to his illustrations.

Oliver Schulze, drawing on the Danish experience, asked whether a high level urban culture fits with the market economy. His was a plea against “bottom-line urbanism”, though he realised that urban cultures cannot be transplanted. Copenhagen had benefited from “an ingrained DNA about building a good city”, by implication saying that this is not something that he finds in Wales or Britain.

As if to prove the point, a presentation about the development of Cardiff, by Tom Morgan, one of Cardiff City Council’s corporate managers, managed not to mention people, communities, or sustainability once, instead extolling large projects – some of them admittedly valuable – and flat-led regeneration as if both the rest of the conference and the banking crisis had not happened.

In his defence one could say that the same sins of omission were made by Elizabeth Taylor, from the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. However, at least she could point to the participation in her city of some of the world’s leading architects, including Foster and Libeskind, as well as of front rank landscape architects, demonstrating a passionate concern for high quality urban design as opposed to Cardiff’s current pile it high philosophy.

There are still planning permissions for 16,000 more apartments extant in Cardiff and, under its emerging Local Development Plan the city seems keen to banish family housing to the Vale of Glamorgan and the valleys. The long-term implications for the Welsh capital’s social cohesion are deeply worrying but, sadly, are the sort of issues that scarcely ever form the meat of public debate at election time.

The biggest challenge thrown out at the conference came from Peter Head, of Arup who, apart from being Project Director on the Second Severn Crossing, was earlier this year named as one of Time Magazine’s 30 worldwide ‘Heroes of the Environment’. He pointed to the carbon intensive nature of our cities and suggested how they might be ‘retro-fitted’ to reduce their carbon emissions. He suggested several ways in which Welsh towns and cities might tackle the task, but one was left with the uncomfortable feeling that most local authorities in Wales are a long way from embedding his kind of thinking into their urban and rural planning.

As Leighton Andrews remarked, “in Wales we ought to find it easier to work together, but we are not very good at sharing best practice”. I suspect he was talking about sharing best practice within Wales, but we also have to share world best practice, and that presents a wider chasm to cross. Let’s hope this bold conference was a start.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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